Her Noise: women creative workers and musicians exhibit and talk at Tate Modern

The Her Noise Symposium I attend on 5 May forms part of the Her Noise: Feminisms and the Sonic collaboration between Electra, CRiSAP and Tate Modern: a series of events investigating feminist discourses in sound and music (including performances by Meredith Monk and Pauline Oliveros that I sadly missed).

The Symposium is a day of talks and discussions among female artists, musicians, curators, writers and academics. It takes place in the Starr Auditorium at Tate Modern, which is not a particularly inspiring venue. As I’m not usually a fan of conference-style learning, I’m a little wary of spending an entire day in the uncompromising red room, with a slight hangover.

As an artist, I’m attending the symposium with the hope of farming for some inspiration to connect feminism to my artistic practice. I sometimes find talking about feminism rather stifling and need to explore new languages to liberate me from this. By exploring how feminist discourses are framed within a current cultural context, we can see tangible examples being explored and shaped.

The Her Noise Symposium is thoughtfully curated to include intergenerational panels and each section has been grouped around a theme and series of questions. It should be noted that the panels are 98% white and European, something that is referenced by some of the speakers but perhaps could have been addressed more proactively. The presentations explore the necessity to archive both the past and the future of connected female histories.

The theme for the programme, Her Noise , started in 2001 as a curatorial project by Lina Džuverovic and Anne Hilde Neset. Working in visual art and electronic music, they both became aware of the ridiculous gender imbalance in sonic art. The two women began research that featured elements such as a hilarious mockumentary, interviewing male artists and asking them gender-specific questions such as: “Do you feel marginalised as a man in music?” which highlighted the absurdity of the situation.

It creates a powerful and complex collective sound coupled with an individual determination to be heard

It was a natural progression for Lina and Anne to create something that celebrated female sonic artists who were majorly overlooked. As Lina points out: “Like all black holes in history, the gap is there until someone fills it.” The two artists began mapping women in electronic music, punk and sonic art, and this culminated in an exhibition entitled Her Noise at The South London Gallery and Tate Modern in 2005. It included Kim Gordon & Jutta Koether, Emma Hedditch, Christina Kubisch, Kaffe Matthews and Hayley Newman. Finding venues to host the project was initially extremely difficult: experimental music and feminism together didn’t seem all that attractive.

Her Noise 2005.jpg

The Her Noise Archive which followed was a DIY provocation of a fluid and living archive to be added to and engaged with. This is currently housed at London College of Communication (LCC). I find the concept of a living archive of female artists simple and inspiring. If women’s musical history has been left out, we can shape the future by creating new histories and being agents in our own right and controlling our futures.

Back in the Starr Auditorium, the featured artists and academics are all creating new sonic futures, in relationship to feminism, ecological structures, technology, radical politics, political actions, occupying space and DIY cultures.

I can’t expand on all of the bodacious artists at the symposium, but there are some key people who I find particularly exciting. For example, Sonia Boyce has worked with the Liverpool Black Sisters to create an ongoing archive and exhibition of female black British singers. The Devotional Project has been going since 1999 and has created an archive of collective memory in many manifestations. Boyce shows a beautiful layering of four videos of singers playing simultaneously, including Poly Styrene, with each singer managing to be heard individually at points and in a mess of sound as one. It creates a powerful and complex collective sound coupled with an individual determination to be heard. Sonia’s work is an elastic archive of the past and the future which, similar to Her Noise, shows the potential of archives as variable and unpredictable and as places where we can interact with history to determine the future.

Catherine Grant explains her research into fandom-feminism as a different relationship that second and third wave feminists could share. She highlights the feminist and gender-queer art collective LTTR who are “dedicated to sustainable change, queer pleasure, and critical productivity” and feature artist Ginger Brooks Takahashi. LTTR have a flexible approach to making art and produce journals, performance and screenings with a DIY aesthetic.

Tara talks about artists currently working with synthesizers, such as Mira Calix and Jessica Rylan

One of the strands at the symposium that I find particularly refreshing is Vocal Folds which explores how the female voice is framed in music and society, a topic I have previously considered and am interested in. The rather beautifully voiced writer Anne Karpf chairs the session. She says the female voice is loaded and we are only exposed to a homogenized view of what a voice is on a daily basis. She gives two examples: the deepened voice of the BBC presenter (which sounds “masculine”) and the high-pitched “gobby Jade Goody voice”.

Challenging these vocal archetypal structures is the amazing Maggie Nicols who gives her presentation with sudden bursts of speaking in tongues and gibberish, while jerking her body around. She talks about the capitalist structures that enslave us and determine how we behave and breaks them down in the moment. This is largely the pattern of the day: in each section, an issue is presented and the artists directly challenge it by showing their work.

The final section is Dissonant Futures This looks at women’s varied uses of technology. Historically, women have been seen as more ‘natural’ than men and featured in a bad light in sci-fi, for instance in Barbarella. Academic Tara Rogers gives a brilliant talk about how women do not feature in electronic music history; you can find a million copies of John Cage’s Silence but female commentators are out of print or rare. Tara then talks about artists currently working with synthesizers, such as Mira Calix and Jessica Rylan (who builds them).

Kaffe Matthews presents her artistic practice concerned with experiencing music through the body, ecology and technology. Her current piece is a vibrating shark platform that she created using data collected from hammerhead sharks and you can see it at the Bluecoat in Liverpool. Kaffe’s Sonic Bed that was in the Her Noise exhibition at South London Gallery can currently be experienced in Scotland until 2013.

Sonic bed.jpg

A statement made by Tara Rogers, which is true of Kaffe Matthews’ work, is that lots of female artists using technology to make their sound do it in a way that is about “being part of ecological systems with technology rather than trying to dominate it”. I think this can be said about lots of the artists featured in the symposium. They engage with a wider society, which is arguably rare for male electronic artists.

By having this symposium, Tate Modern recognises these boundary-breaking and anti-establishment artists and frames them within the art institution

These artists are creating exciting new languages to understand and experience the world in their unique and experimental ways. This symposium has highlighted their awareness of feminism as a vast and complex landscape. In one of the Q&As, Tara Rogers quite rightly points out that we should resist the single category of feminism, because it is dangerous. Georgina Born who co-founded the Feminist Improvising Group (FIG) in 1977 says that commenters look back at FIG with rose-tinted glasses and this was not the truth. We need to watch out that we do not self-idealise; we need to be interested in differences and face outwards.

The Feminist Improvising Group (FIG), 1977-1982.jpg

The artists are not ashamed to bare all and show their experimentations, with some of them presenting works in progress at the symposium. Lina Džuverovic says that she feels the 2005 exhibition Her Noise was too safe and not radical enough and this left it open to criticism (see Adrian Searle’s reaction). With the elasticity this way of archiving allows, it seems that lots of the artists here aren’t necessarily concerned with being precious about owning their work in the authorship sense. They are more interested in ongoing conversations, criticisms and developing new languages.

The experimental and DIY attitude to lots of the artists’ work is interesting to witness, considering we are at the Tate, described brilliantly by artist Emma Hedditch as a neo-liberal cultural centre. By having this symposium, Tate Modern recognises these boundary-breaking and anti-establishment artists and frames them within the art institution. However, I’d say placing the Her Noise programme, including the performances, in the Auditorium is perhaps not the appropriate place for these art forms (especially seeing as the technical team are not up to scratch which is funny considering the theme of the day!).

The symposium connects these artists who are creating new futures using their amazing artistic toolkit, energy and subversion. Despite my usual misgivings about conference-style learning, I end the day feeling invigorated and really excited about the amount of talented, intelligent and innovative female artists working in sonic art. I leave the Tate feeling validated to go out and artistically deconstruct the suffocating capitalist structures that we live under every day.

At the end of her talk, Maggie Nicols exclaims, writhing her hands in the air: “I don’t want this fucking capitalist, imperialist structure anymore!” And for me, Maggie’s exclamation is what fuels the fire for lots of the work discussed here today.


1.Several figures walk across the Millennium Bridge in London, approaching Tate Modern. Released into the public domain by its author, Adrian Pingstone.

2. Her Noise signage installation, South London Gallery, 2005. “Her” is written in grey letters on a piece of cut to shape white paper and “Noise” is in black. The top of a ladder can be seen in the bottom left corner. By Practise, shared under a creative commons licence.

3. Kaffe Matthews’ and Annette Works’ Sonic Bed_London installation, London. This is a wooden framed square with steps leading up to it and a soft bedding-like surface inside. A woman with a pink T-shirt and black cropped trousers is lying back in this and smiling. Her eyes are closed, her arms are out at her sides and her right leg crossed behind her left one. Image by Ars Electronica, shared under a creative commons licence.

4. Black and white shot of FIG performing on stage. (Left to right: Corinne Liensol on brass, Cathy Williams with arms crossed looking at the floor, Georgie Born on cello, Maggie Nicols dancing and Lindsay Cooper on piano.) Author unknown. Permitted under Wikipedia fair use policies.

Editorial note: “Female” changed to “women” in title at 01.38 20 May 2012.

Correction on 23 May, 2012: “The project, Good Morning Freedom has been going since 1970 and has created an archive of collective memory in many manifestations” changed to “The Devotional Project has been going since 1999 and has created an archive of collective memory in many manifestations”.

Joanne is an artist, collaborator and marketer working in site-specific and live art. Recently she’s been listening to Gold Panda and Grouper